Nov 29, 2009

Uncle Bob and Uncle Bill...


When I lived on the Mississippi gulf coast from 1972 until 1978, I usually spent holidays with my brother Bill, his wife Joan, and their twin sons, Mark and David. Thus, it was normal behavior when I was found at Willy and Joani's, in Pass Christian, Mississippi, on Thanksgiving Day, 1976. We had finished our mid-afternoon turkey dinner and happened to have the radio on in the kitchen, as usual tuned to WWL in New Orleans ("50,000 watts of clear-channel power").

At that time, the afternoon DJ was a fellow named Eric Tracy. He, and sometimes his wife, Linda, did a mixed program of news, music, and talk. One of his specialties was bantering with the public on telephone conversations covering every subject under the sun. On this particular Thanksgiving, Eric had a problem. No one was calling in. He pleaded, "Folks, I really need you to call in. I'm dying on the vine. Call in and talk about anything, read a poem, I don't care." Eric needed help. Willy and I sprang into action.
Eric Tracy in the 1970's

I could recite a poem. As a kid, I often hung around with the Goble boys in Schenectady. One of them had written a lampoon on Thanksgiving poetry. I remembered enough that I could fill in the blanks on a poem.

And Bill and I had often played ukulele and kazoo duets after a few beers with our friends. We covered a lot of bluesy, old timey music -- Way Down Yonder in New Orleans, Hard Hearted Hannah (the Vamp of Savannah, G-A!), Back Home Again in Indiana, 'Honi Kaua Wikiwiki' - On the Beach at Waikiki, and dozens more. In fact, my brother knew a remarkable body of lyrics to obscure vaudeville favorites, probably because he had studied ukulele under Vic Tyminski, an old vaudeville performer.

Bill tuned his uke; I carefully wrapped my comb with the lightest foil available (cellophane never works for long periods of performance). We called Eric Tracy. He was glad to hear from us. I began by reciting the long-dormant poem,
"Under the tunnel, across the bridge, to Grandmother's flat we rush.
The car knows the road, 'cause often we've goed, through the grey and greasy slush.
Down tha alley, across the street, the tenement now we spy.
Hurrah for the cheer, and the ice-cold beer, and Swanson's Chicken Pie!"
(With all due apologies to Lou Goble.)

Eric loved it, but the best was yet to come. We informed him that "Uncle Bob and Uncle Bill, the World's Most Famous Ukulele and Kazoo Duet" was about to perform. We opened with Way Down Yonder... Eric loved it. We followed with a few more of our best numbers. He loved those. As the top of the hour, Eric said, "Can you guys stay on the line? I need to go to some ads, but I want to talk to you." We stayed on the line.

Eric returned after a few moments. He said he loved our music and asked if we could come in to New Orleans some Saturday and record our repertoire in the WWL studios for him to use on his show as theme, lead-in to breaks, etc. He promised to take us to the Fairgrounds Racetrack as his guests. We agreed and a couple of weeks later did a recording session of a couple hours worth of music - ukulele, kazoo, and voice. And Eric kept his word -- we enjoyed an afternoon at the track as guests of WWL radio. For the next few years, I would hear my own music being played on the Eric Tracy Show as I drove home from work each afternoon.

Eventually, Eric left the New Orleans area. After my brother died, I regretted that I never had kept any recordings of "Uncle Bob and Uncle Bill." I eventually contacted Eric Tracy, who is now a radio personality at San Francisco's KFWB. He had been unable to keep the tapes we had recorded; They were property of the station. He and I agreed that they are probably long gone, especially after the ravages of Katrina. Ahhh, but the memories are wonderful.

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